The Nazis' Violent Road to Leningrad

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December 28, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IINazi GermanySoviet UnionLeningradOperation Barbarossa

The Nazis' Violent Road to Leningrad

The chances of taking Leningrad with another lightning attack seemed nothing more than a dream —a dream that had been shattered with Russian blood.

Hitler was obsessed with Leningrad. When planning his invasion of the Soviet Union, the Führer demanded that the capture of the city, which he regarded as the cradle of Bolshevism, be one of the top priorities of the campaign, giving it precedence over the capture of Moscow.

Therefore, when the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht—the German Armed Forces High Command) issued Directive No. 21, also known as Operation Barbarossa, it included instructions for Army Group North to attack out of East Prussia, destroy Soviet forces in the Baltic area, and then drive forward to capture Leningrad.

The Plan to Secure the Daugava River

To accomplish that mission, Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, the army group commander, had two infantry armies, the 16th and 18th, and Panzer Group 4, which would be his mailed fist. The approximately 700 kilometer thrust to the city would take von Leeb’s army group through country that was dotted with marshes and forests and was crisscrossed with streams and rivers.

One of the first objectives for von Leeb was the Daugava River (also known as the Dvina), which rises in the Valdai Hills in Belarus and flows 1,020 kilometers to the Gulf of Riga. Securing crossings on the river was vital for von Leeb, especially because they also sat on some of the few good roads in the area.

General Erich Hoepner’s Panzer Group 4 was given the task of taking the bridges spanning the river intact. This would involve a mad dash across Lithuania to the Latvian cities of Daugavpils (Dvinsk to the Russians and Dünaburg to the Germans) and Jekabpils. The Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia had been “liberated” and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940.

Hoepner’s forces consisted of two motorized corps—the XLI, commanded by General George-Hans Reinhardt, and the LVI, under General Erich von Manstein. Reinhardt was to take the Jekabpils crossing, while von Manstein was to take the Daugavpils bridges. On Panzer Group 4’s right flank, General Ernst Busch’s 16th Army would move on Kaunus. General Georg von Küchler’s 18th Army, positioned on the left flank, would push toward Riga.

An Innocuous Warning

Facing von Leeb were the forces of Lt. Gen. Fedor Isadorovich Kuznetsov’s Baltic Special Military District, which would become the Northwest Front the day the war started.

Maj. Gen. Petr Petrovich Sobennikov’s 8th Army, five infantry, two tank and one mechanized division plus two frontier regiments, was anchored on the Baltic coastline. On his left was Lt. Gen. Vasili Ivanovich Morozov’s 11th Army, eight rifle, two tank, and one mechanized division plus three frontier regiments. They were backed up by Maj. Gen. Nikolai Erastovich Berzanin’s 27th Army of six rifle divisions.

The Soviet High Command (Stavka) knew that a German attack was imminent from German defectors crossing the line. Stalin, however, remained unconvinced, but he did allow his front line commanders to be issued a warning of a possible surprise attack. The warning was worded in a way that caused most commanders more consternation rather than giving them direction. For example, “The assignment of our forces—not to give way to provocations of any kind which might lead to major complications.” They were also told them to man forward positions but “no other measures are to be taken without special authorization.”

Upon receiving the rather innocuous warning early on June 22, 1941, Kuznetsov ordered his men to “secretly man the defenses of the basic zones.” In the forward areas, sentries were moved to guard pillboxes, but units assigned to occupy the forward zones were to be held back.

He added, “In the case of provocative action by the Germans, fire is not to be opened. In the event of flights by German aircraft over our territory, make no demonstration, and until such time as enemy aircraft undertake military operations, no fire is to be opened on them.”

The order, no doubt, must have caused many commanders to wonder what the difference was between provocation and military operations. At any rate, only a few of the frontline commanders had received the order by 0300 hours, and by that time it was too late.

Blitzkrieg on the Eastern Front

Across the border, the western sky suddenly lit up. The brilliant flashes were swiftly followed by the howl of shells overhead. Seconds later, massive explosions rocked pretargeted positions along the Russian lines. Operation Barbarossa and the race to Leningrad had begun.

Both von Manstein and Reinhardt knew speed was essential in reaching the Daugava. Because of the poor road system, both generals would have to rely on armored spearheads smashing through the Soviet line while disregarding their flanks, but before the mechanized units could move the infantry would have to take the forward enemy positions along the Neman River, which ran along the border between East Prussia and Lithuania.

There was little resistance as assault troops rolled over the surprised Soviets. Crossings on the Neman were secured, giving von Manstein and Reinhardt the openings they needed to begin their dash to the Daugava.

By 6 am, von Manstein reported that Brig. Gen. Erich Brandenberger’s 8th Panzer Division had taken Jurbarkas and Maj. Gen. Theodore Freiherr von Wrede’s 290th Infantry Division was advancing through the village of Mitua, 12 kilometers northwest of Brandenberger’s unit. In Reinhardt’s sector, the 6th Panzer Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Franz Landgraf, was already four kilometers south of Taurage, and Maj. Gen. Friedrich Kirchner’s 1st Panzer Division was directly west of the city.

“We Advise You Not Engage in Combat Operations”

The initial German bombardment and aerial attacks had made a shambles of the Soviet communications network. Morozov’s 11th Army had received no orders at all as Hoepner’s panzers continued to push deeper into Russian territory. Colonel Fedor Petrovich Ozerov, commanding the 5th Rifle Division in Maj. Gen. Mikhail Mikhailovich Ivanov’s 16th Rifle Corps, watched as German forces overran his forward positions. Radioing corps headquarters, he was told, “We advise you not to engage in combat operations. Otherwise you will answer for the consequences.”

By midafternoon, Brandenberger’s 8th Motorcycle Battalion, under Lt. Col. Rudolf Kütt, had created a bridgehead across the Dubysa River at Seredžius, and by early evening a combat group under Lt. Col. Wilhelm Crisolli had secured vital crossings at Ariogala. Without those crossings, the advance to Daugavpils could not have continued. Elements of the 8th Panzer were thus able to continue their advance reinforced by units of the 290th, which was, in von Manstein’s words, “marching at record speed.”

Ozerov managed to pull back most of his division behind the Dubysa and had taken up positions near Zasinai, about two kilometers northeast of Arigola. Advance elements of the 8th Panzer moved into the area and were met with antitank fire and harassing attacks from light Soviet tanks. The first day’s action ended for the 8th Panzer at 11 pm when the Germans pulled out of range.

Meanwhile, the 290th kept filtering units across the Dubysa, and Maj. Gen. Kurt Jahn’s 3rd Motorized Division was coming up fast. To the southeast, Brig. Gen. Theodor Eicke’s 3rd SS Totenkopf (Death’s Head) Division was also coming up to join the fight.

Soviet Encounters With the Luftwaffe

In Reinhardt’s sector the going was slower. Launching his attack from the Tilsit area in East Prussia, his four divisions hit a single Russian division, which fought a desperate delaying action at the frontier. The Russians eventually crumbled, opening the way to Taurage. Local counterattacks, however, made the initial advance of the Germans difficult.

On the Soviet side, Kuznetsov was frantically trying to marshal his forces for a counterattack. During the evening of the 22nd, Stavka issued orders for both the 8th and 11th Armies to stop the German advance. As Reinhardt moved toward Raseiniai, about 55 kilometers northeast of Taurage, Sobennikov’s 12th Mechanized Corps (23rd and 28th Tank Divisions and 202nd Mechanized Division), commanded by Maj. Gen. Nikolai Mikhailovich Shestpalov, and Morozov’s 3rd Mechanized Corps (2nd and 5th Tank Divisions and 84th Mechanized Division), under Maj. Gen. Aleksei Vasilevich Kurkin, moved into the area to intercept and destroy the Germans.*

The Soviet forces seemed to be cursed from the start. To avoid Luftwaffe detection, Kuznetsov ordered the armored units to advance toward Raseiniai in small detachments. That did not stop the fighters and bombers of General Alfred Keller’s 1st Air Fleet from savaging the Russian units. Heavy air attacks hit the 12th Mechanized Corps southwest of Siauliai, about 100 kilometers northeast of Taurage. Colonel T.S. Orlenko, commander of the 23rd Tank Division, watched in horror as 40 of his vehicles were blown apart by low-flying bombers. Soviet fighters were nowhere to be seen.

Other units suffered a similar fate, but the survivors kept moving on. As both German and Russian forces moved toward Raseiniai, the opening shots of a four-day battle rang out. The Germans were about to get the first of many nasty surprises of the war in the east as they ran headlong into the surviving elements of the Soviet mechanized corps.

The Fearsome Russian Heavy Tanks